Help! My snake won't eat!
Anery Corn snake tucking in to a pinkie mouse, image by bogdog Dan
Snakes refusing to eat is a problem that most snake owners come across at least once or twice during their time keeping them. â€œHelp, my snake wonâ€™t eat!â€ is a question which comes up time and time again so I wanted to write a page addressing the issue, and explaining a few of the more common tips and tricks that keepers employ to start their snakes feeding again.
There are many species for which refusal of food may never be a problem, ravenous feeders like corn snakes tend to be great feeders â€“ which is one of the reasons they are recommended as beginners snakes. By contrast, if you choose to keep something like ahognose snake or a ball python, amongst many other species there may come a time when your snake decides it does not want to feed for one reason for another â€“ and you may need to coax it in to feeding. There are a number of methods employed commonly in the hobby. Though this article we will look at some of the reasons your snake might decide it does not want to feed and then move on to methods to help you encourage them to feed.
Why is my snake not eating?
A great question, and one with a million answers.
A snake which has recently undergone a change of environment will often take time to adjust and therefore refuse food for a few weeks whilst it finds its feet so to speak (what a fine term to use when referring to snakes). If you have recently acquired your snake then give it a few weeks to settle in before worrying that it is not eating. Royal pythons in particular may need a month or more to settle in before happily feeding. Whilst in this period of settling in try to disturb your snake as little as possible.
The most common cause of a snake not eating is when it is approaching a slough. Snakes generally go off their food when they are about to shed their skin. This process is characterized by the colouration of the snake dulling and the eyes going milky in colour. There are a couple of theories pertaining to why snakes refuse food around shedding time; one is that shedding is a stressful and risky time for the snake so they are generally quite sluggish and off their food. The other theory is that the milkiness which covers their eyes obscures the vision making it difficult for them to see their food etc, which puts the snake off feeding.
Sloughing can cause a snake to refuse food
Snakes are also well known for refusing to feed around winter time â€“ this is perfectly natural. In the wild many snakes will â€œover winterâ€ or brumate where they enter a state which is not dissimilar to hibernation. In captivity even if you do not reduce temperatures your snake will generally be able to tell it is winter by the photoperiod (the reducing number of hours of daylight throughout winter). This often triggers the snakes to refuse food and activity in general. As I say this is perfectly normal. This is a â€œproblemâ€ which is more commonly seen in male snakes; make ball pythons are notorious for fasting for months over winter. I have one individual royal python who starts to refuse food around the beginning of November and will not eat again until early March the following year. He does this almost by clockwork and has done for the last eight years of his life; needless to say he is perfectly healthy and a fantastic breeder.
Change of environment?
Another cause of feeding problems is the conditions within the vivarium not being quite right. If your pet snake is refusing food you should double check your set up. Have you made any recent chances to the vivarium? Made any additions etc? Double check the temperatures in both the warm end and the cool end of the vivarium, are they ok? Try using a different thermometer to double check the temperatures to make sure the one you are using isnâ€™t simply inaccurate.
You may also be using an incorrect feeding technique, this is particularly common with new acquisitions. If you have a snake which is used to strike feeding and you are simply leaving the food in the vivarium and waiting for it to eat the snake may simply not recognise that it is food. The problem can happen the other way too (the methods employed by strike feeding can be a little intimidating so a snake which is not used to such a feeding method).
Does the snake feel secure in its enclosure? Does it have a few fairly tight fitting hides it can retreat to and hide away feeling safe and secure? It is essential that you have a happy, secure feeling snake if you want it to feed. Make sure you have at least two hides in with your snake which are the right size â€“ one in the warm end and one in the cool end of the vivarium.
You may also be attempting to feed your snake too often, a refusal of food is likely a slightly stressful experience for the snake (especially if it involves being moved into another container and having a rodent thrust in front of it). When attempting to encourage your snake to eat again do not offer food more than once a week â€“ any more often will be counterproductive.
Is the food item you are offering the right size for the snake? Food items which are too large can be intimidating to the snake, especially if you hold them in such a way which makes them look larger. For example, gripping a rodent and dangling it by the tail makes it look much larger than if you hold it by the scruff of the neck and present the head to the snake. Hopefully it goes without saying that doing the latter requires the use of tweezers/forceps.
Finally, your snake may well be sick. If you are really concerned you should see a vet to rule out any health problems which may be putting a snake off its food. Do remember though, short term refusal of food in snakes (ie refusing food for a month or two) is quite normal and should not raise too many alarm bells. It is only through long term food refusal and the snake showing signs of loosing weight that you should be concerned and consider seeing your local reptile vet.
To acompany this guide, we have written a guide explaining the methods which can be employed to get your snake feeding again. How to feed a snake which is refusing food.
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